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TORT LAW - MOTOR VEHICLE AND TRAFFIC LAW - VICARIOUS LIABILITY - PROXIMATE CAUSE

"Loading and unloading" is included in the term "use or operation" as used in Motor Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388(1). Vehicle need not be the proximate cause of an injury for the vehicle owner to be vicariously liable.

[SUMMARY] | [ISSUE & DISPOSITION] | [AUTHORITIES CITED] | [COMMENTARY]

SUMMARY

Plaintiff was unloading a truck owned by Defendant when a steel plate fell from the truck and injured him. A third party had negligently loaded the steel plate onto the truck at a previous stop. Plaintiff sued in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, claiming that Defendant was liable under New York Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 388(1). The statute holds vehicle owners liable if an injury resulted from the negligent "use or operation" of their vehicle.

The District Court held that "use or operation" covers loading and unloading activities. However, they found defendant not liable because the vehicle was not the proximate cause of the accident. The court held that a vehicle owner is not liable under the statute if the vehicle did not cause the injury. Plaintiff appealed, and the Second Circuit certified two questions to the New York Court of Appeals.

ISSUE & DISPOSITION

Issue(s)

1. Whether loading and unloading a vehicle is "use or operation" of that vehicle pursuant to New York's Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 388(1).

2. Whether a vehicle must be a proximate cause of an injury under New York's Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 388(1) for the owner of the vehicle to be vicariously liable.

Disposition

1. Yes. New York Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 388(1) covers acts done while the vehicle is not in motion, including loading and unloading.

2. No. Under New York's Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 388(1) the vehicle need not be a proximate cause of the injury for the owner to be vicariously liable.

AUTHORITIES CITED

Cases Cited by the Court

Other Sources Cited by the Court

  • N.Y. Veh. & Tr. §§ 310(2), 388(1) (1999).
  • N.Y. Insurance Law § 5103(a)(1).
  • N.Y. Veh. and Tr. § 59 (1929).
  • N.Y. Highway Law § 282-e (1909).
  • N.Y. Comp. Codes R. & Regs. tit. 11 § 60-1.1.
  • Recommendations of the Commission to the Legislature, Law Revision Commission, Legislative Documents (1958), No 65 (G) & (H), at 648 (Dec 17, 1957).
  • Rep. of the Joint Legislative Comm. on Insurance Rates, Regulation and Recodification of the Insurance Law, Governor's Approval Mem., L. 1973, ch 13, § 1, reprinted in 1973 Legislative Documents No. 18, at 7.
  • James N. Benedict, Comment, New York Adopts No-Fault: A Summary and Analysis, 37 Albany L Rev 662 (1973).
  • W. Page Keeton et al., Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts § 84, at 600-607 (5th ed. 1984).
  • Maya v. General Motors, 953 F. Supp. 1245 (D.N.M. 1996).
  • Nugent v. Curry, 908 F. Supp. 309 (D. Md. 1995).
  • BASF Wyandotte Corp. v. Transport Ins. Co., 523 F. Supp. 515 (E.D. Mich. 1981).
  • Penske Truck Leasing Co. v. Moore, 702 So. 2d 1295 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997).
  • Woodside v. Gerken Food Co., 130 Ill.App.3d 501 (Ill. App. Ct. 1985).
  • Union Mutual Fire Ins. Co. v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 521 A.2d 308 (Me. 1987).
  • American Family Mutual Ins. Co. v. Shelter Mutual Ins. Co., 747 S.W.2d 174 (Mo. Ct. App. 1988) .
  • West v. Collins, 251 Kan. 657 (Kan. 1992).
  • Union Mutual Fire Ins. Co. v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 521 A.2d 308 (Me. 1987).
  • Kennedy v. Jefferson Smurfit Co., 147 N.J. 394 (N.J. 1997).

COMMENTARY

State of the Law Before Argentina

The issues in Argentina were of first impression in New York (as evidenced by their status as certified questions). The Court had not previously ruled as to whether loading and unloading fell within the meaning of "use or operation" under the Motor Vehicle Law, although it had previously answered that "loading and unloading" constituted "use or operation" under the Insurance Law. Similarly, the Court had discussed proximate cause and vicarious liability as it related to the no-fault provisions of the Insurance Law, but not as it related to the Motor Vehicle and Traffic Law. The Court had not limited application of the statute to situations where the vehicle is in motion.

Effect of Argentina on Current Law

Argentina clarified that loading and unloading a vehicle falls within the meaning of "use or operation" of the vehicle under to New York Vehicle and Traffic Law § 388(1). Although § 388(1) uses the general term "use or operation," both legislative history and case law indicate that the statute includes loading and unloading activities. The Court broadly interpreted the statute to impose liability on vehicle owners for accidents resulting from negligence even when the vehicle is not in motion. However the Court also noted that "mere 'prepatory and preliminary activity'" antecedent to loading or unloading of the vehicle would . . . fall outside of section 388(1)." Argentina at note 1 (citing Frontuto v. Ray Burgun Trucking Co., 78 N.Y.2d 938, 939). The Court limited its opinion to loading and unloading and did not speculate about other activities that could constitute "use or operation." The Court also held that the vehicle itself need not be a proximate cause of the plaintiff's injury in order to hold the owner vicariously liable. However, the court noted that an injured plaintiff must still prove negligence in use or operation of the vehicle, so this holding will not result in overbroad application of the statute.

Unanswered Questions

In a Footnote 2, the court explicitly left the second certified question, as asked, unanswered. The federal court asked if the vehicle must be "the" proximate cause. The Court of Appeals felt that the more relevant question was whether the vehicle need be "a" proximate cause, as an accident can have more than one proximate cause. So it remains to be seen if an accident caused by more than one instrumentality would be reached by the ruling. In addition, the court did not address the defendant's argument that, because their liability insurance explicitly (and properly) excluded loading and unloading from "use or operation" and thus rendered claims sustained through such activities outside of policy coverage there is an illogical gap by which the Motor Vehicle Law creates liability and the no-fault law excludes it from coverage. Perhaps, however, the court did not address this issue because such injuries may be insured through other insurance schemes, such as workers compensation or general (not commercial automobile) liability insurance.

Survey of the Law in Other Jurisdictions

Several jurisdictions have addressed the issue of whether loading and unloading activities fall within the conventional definition of the "use or operation" of a vehicle. Courts in Maine, New Jersey, Michigan and Illinois held that loading and unloading a vehicle constitute the "use or operation" of the vehicle. Union Mutual Fire Ins. Co. v. Commercial Union Ins. Co., 521 A.2d 308 (Me. 1987) (holding that the removal of a loaded gun fell under the category of "use" of the vehicle and consequently, the insured individual's automobile insurance policy covered the costs related to the injuries); Kennedy v. Jefferson Smurfit Co., 147 N.J. 394 (N.J. 1997) (holding that the shipper's loading of a defective pallet onto a tractor-trailer was in fact a "use" of the vehicle, and therefore, the shipper was within the protection of the trailer owner's insurance policy); BASF Wyandotte Corp. v. Transport Ins. Co., 523 F. Supp. 515 (E.D. Mich. 1981) (holding that the injury suffered by an employee while loading and unloading a semi-truck and trailer stemmed from the use of the vehicle, thus permitting the employee to receive no-fault benefits); Woodside v. Gerken Food Co., 130 Ill.App.3d 501 (Ill. App. Ct. 1985) (relying upon the "complete operations" doctrine, and holding that loading and unloading a vehicle constituted the operation of the vehicle).

However, the Missouri Court of Appeals approached the issue differently. American Family Mutual Ins. Co. v. Shelter Mutual Ins. Co., 747 S.W.2d 174 (Mo. Ct. App. 1988) (holding that in order to determine whether an accident lies within the scope of a vehicle liability policy's provision concerning loading and unloading, the court must discern the relationship between the use of the vehicle and the context of the accident).

The Argentina court also ruled that a vehicle does not have to be a proximate cause of the injury in order for the vehicle's owner to be held vicariously liable. In Florida and Maryland courts have held that vehicle owners were vicarious liable for another driver's negligent conduct. Penske Truck Leasing Co. v. Moore, 702 So. 2d 1295 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 1997) (holding that proximate cause was an issue for the jury to analyze and that the lessor was vicariously liable for the lessee's negligent driving of the truck); Nugent v. Curry, 908 F. Supp. 309 (D. Md. 1995) (holding that according to District of Columbia law, an employer was vicariously liable for the driver's negligent conduct); Rulings in New Mexico and Kanas are distinguishable. Maya v. General Motors, 953 F. Supp. 1245 (D.N.M. 1996) concluded that under the New Mexico Mandatory Financial Responsibility Act a vehicle's owner was not vicariously liable for injuries stemming from the conduct of the driver of the vehicle. The Supreme Court of Kansas ruled in West v. Collins, 251 Kan. 657 (Kan. 1992) that an automobile dealer was liable for damages stemming from an accident only if it negligently permitted an unqualified driver to operate the vehicle. Furthermore, the court ruled that it would not impose vicarious liability on the dealership merely because the business allowed a third party to drive the vehicle in question.

Prepared by:

  • Suchir Batra 01
  • William D. Hawkins 00
  • Deanne S. Lew 01
  • Sheila M. Peluso 01
  • Evan O. Williford 01